By Rob Cain
Begging is boring. No one wants to talk to you. Pariah and outcast. You are nothing to them. They don’t look at your face. You are shadow. A hand. An open palm. A taker. Worthless street trash to be stepped around. They speed up their step as soon as you come into view.
Never a full sentence is said to you. Nouns and adverbs blurted with adverted eyes as they make an escape. Most take a swat at you. The nobles have their slaves push you out of the way. Hired gladiators bruise your arms and tug you by the hair from the path of their employer.
Your voice is to be ignored. You are invisible. Many figure the Gods have taken away your luck, and your luckless state will stick to them like honey. Those with money are a superstitious lot. They believe beggars carry bad luck like hosting a flea looking for a ride.
Every day was the same. I sat at my corner and hoped for a copper. I starved at the foot of luxury. Rome was bloated with money, but I did not see a copper of it. Men walked by in eastern silk, and little boys ate honey drenched cakes and fed the remains to the dogs without thinking for a moment that the beggar would love a sliver of the pastry upon which the dog gorged. I was just two street, from the The Street of Bread, where the ovens of the Baker’s Guild, made their wares. The scent of crusted bread traveled and my stomach quaked at the delicious scent. A better torture could not be devised.
Begging is an occupation for the clever, and clever fills the ranks of the Beggar’s Guild. Amis the Cypriot was down by the Tiber. He was a professional crier. Tears streamed down his face. His body shook, and his nose dripped snot, and he boo- hooed like a virgin on a wedding night. What works – works – especially in the begging game.
Sephonis, the Ostian, was by the Forum. He wore a cock cover, and was a master contortionist. His head was hidden, and he moved his body about so passersby saw nothing but the scarred shoulder and empty spot where his arm once protruded from the socket. A sword swipe from a pirate took his arm off at the shoulder. Now he had nothing there, but a hideous scar and half-grown skin. Magically he was able to hide his head. He could wrap his body so that he seemed to be a headless angled shape of bone. In performance, he was nothing but back, legs and a hideous scar. He could wrap himself up until he looked like a copy of the Gordian knot. Coins always found their way into his cup. What works – works – especially in the begging game.
There was Matris, and her blind daughter Diedre. She held a moneybag as she spun tales of woe to her marks. “She was born blind,” said Matris with a quiver in her voice.” “I need to take her to Athens. There is a medicus of great skill who can restore her sight.” There was no medicus in Athens. Money is given more freely when it is thought there is a happy ending. Diedre never went to Athens. Matris never begged without her daughter standing right by her side. The young girl stood like a Sybil at the mouth of a cave. She was alluring. It helped to be prepubescent, with unblemished skin and blondish hair. Men leered, boys bit their lips in admiration, old senators offered to buy her, but Matris refused. Out of earshot of her daughter, she confessed that she had blinded the girl herself. “She will always be a subject of pity, Metris explained. “And I shall have lifetime employment.” Whatever works – works – especially in the begging game.
As for me, I am a terrible beggar. I have no skills, no disfigurements. I simply waste away. To be hungry is my talent. To waste away for the entertainment of others is my game.
Like I said, begging is boring. Each day the same. My corner had foot-traffic. There was a theater a block down. The crowds were heaviest after the afternoon show. People were looser, wine had addled them, and a bit of Pindar made them slightly more free with their money. I sat on my corner watching marks walk by. It is tiring to play the ‘pitiful’ game, and soon I was sitting just holding out my hand with the palm up. No sad face. No quivering. No kneeling and falling over. I just sat there with my hand out, as Rome passed before me. Mostly there were mothers, children, soldiers, bootmakers, pillow-fluffers, knife-makers, knife-boys, and strangle-hands. An occasional senator tramped by, making a wide berth around my lump of flesh. And at the moment, at my darkest, when I though I would die right there, and never see a sausage again, a coin was dropped in my hand.
I looked at it, and to my amazement discovered it was a denarii.
I wanted to cry. Today I eat. My world changed – in a drop of a coin. I had to see my benefactor. This amazing prince who gave me such a fortune. I imagined him a god. I would thank him personally. I would kiss his hand. I slowly got to my feet. “My awful knees!” And stumbled forward to see this prince of men…this GOD! A denarii, a whole denarii.
I just needed to walk a little faster. My benefactor was sauntering. I would have overtaken by now if it weren’t for my blasted knees. Women on a morning stroll got in my way. People’s backs always seem to get in the way. Just a peek. Just a little peek to see his face. There he is!
My breath was taken away. Immediately, I slowed my step. He walked by without even acknowledging my presence. It can’t be, I thought. The gods suck. They really suck. No. Boy, the Gods play us. I am a player in a farce. I stood there in the crowd watching his back as he walked away. I wanted to cry. I wanted to chase him down and pound his head in with a pavement stone. That would have been wonderful, but I knew I did not have the strength.
Beauty is as beauty does. Both men and women gave my benefactor lustful eyes. He walked through the crowd amidst two camps. The first, those that lusted over him. There were many that watched him pass not realizing who he was. Some young men followed him. Shop seller girls hid behind daisy chains and giggled. Old lechers and widowed wives, longing for a young man on the make, wondered his name and would dream tonight of his touch upon their scented beds.
Those that knew him for what he was, gave him a wide berth, and turned away from his face as if he would note them and send guards to have them dragged to his torturers bench.
Xerxes, the state torturer.
I staggered behind. I could not believe it was him. The market crowd gazed at him like he was a famous. They gazed longingly at him as if trying to take in as much as they could before he was swallowed up by the crowd. Women whispered as he passed. Daughters ran to their fathers and pointed at the boy that sauntered by. Soon their faces dropped into terror when told of his identity. They would spit phlegm into a palm, to ward off evil, and looked skywards in gratitude for not taking the wrong step. I could see them whisper. I knew the content of the their conversation.
“You like him? That is the torturer, are you crazy? Don’t look at him. That is attention that you do not need.”
“How do you know?” the girl would ask.
“I know, I’ve seen him at work. He is talked about in the suburra. Pay 3 silvers and you can watch him practice his art.”
Xerxes. There he was, still young, and still vibrant. And look at me. OLD! I can barely stand, and he is given full reign in the market. Look…LOOK, the fruit seller gave him a pear. Free! FREE! He filled his belly while I starve. Well, at least I had his coin. The God’s laugh at us. They were certainly laughing at me. He was getting away. He will get away if I do not move.
“Off your ass,” I told myself. “Off your ass, open your eyes, scab nose. Now is the time to cut his throat. In a crowd, it would be easy. There are too many shoulders, too many backs – a blade in the kidney, and up the backside would hardly be noticed. No one will know. I have a knife, the very knife fit to do the job,” I thought.
The knife was stolen off a knife-maker’s table. Something to clean the nails. It was a small thing. I sharpened it night after night, grinding the blade on whatever stone I could find. I kept the knife for this very day. I hoped that our paths would cross. He was still beautiful — still young. IMMORTAL!
He did not see me. Why should he remember? Even if he did he would not recognize me. I had changed. I was sunburned, filthy, and terribly thin. My hair had fallen out in the sun. My nose was red. My clothes were falling off me in rags. I wore a donkey blanket across my legs. I stank of donkey. I walked on spindly legs.
I staggered across the square towards his back. His death would have been so easy. I would have pushed the blade in both of kidneys and simply walked slowly away. Who would care?
This is the point in the story, where I say: “The memories flooded back.” That would be a lie.
The memories never left.
If you had to pick between slave or free – pick slave. As a slave I was an accountant. I had a desk, a clean tunic, a bowl of beans. Once I had a bed, and a pillow soft as down. But that is then – and this is now.
Now, I sleep with cockroaches. Just a small bit of advice: when you sleep rough, keep your mouth closed.
I was smart. Through my own devices I bought my freedom. But being free in Rome is hard. I soon discovered that slavery was easier. If you are free, you must have money. If you have nothing but your flesh to sell, you are a slave. Some are slaves to the state. Some are slaves to a bowl of beans. I was slave to both.
I am hungry. I am always hungry. I needed a bath. I had no door fee for that. I could have bathed in the Tiber, but that water was filthy. Let’s face it, the poor stink from the lack of a tub. Water costs.
Once I was rich. I had a bowl of beans, one quarter bread, half measure of wine, and a bed to sleep. Now that is wealth!
Now, I am nothing. Children titter and push each other so the victim falls in my lap. The child would always scream in terror. The nursery slave would always tug at the child’s hand before leading them away, while making sure to strike me with a fist for being a nuisance. I am the monster. I am the obstacle in the street. An ugly thing with outstretched hand. A walking skeleton. A pavement monster. Patrician, and knight advert their eyes. The slaves push me away. I AM THE WORST KIND OF ROMAN – A BEGGAR.
TO BE HUNGRY IS YOUR OWN FAULT!
There he was. He stopped momentarily to talk to a man with his arms filled with packages. He smiled. The monster. The torturer. Smiling. I imagined that his belly was full. Bastard! Xerxes continued on his walk, stopping to splash water on his face from a corner fountain. He then saw a foreigner selling perfumes in strange bottles. He had to take a sniff. To see him acting human in the town market was upsetting. He couldn’t possibly be doing something so mundane. I couldn’t believe it. I never expected to see him again. How long had it been? Two years? As an accountant I measured time quite accurately. As a beggar, years meshed in upon the other. Two years? Maybe it was five. He still had that pear. He pulled it out and finished it off with 4 large bites. Bastard.
I had not eaten in days, but here – in front of my eyes – he filled his belly.
Right then and there I transformed into the Goddess Nemesis. I took delight in spying on my prey. The idea of revenge kept me sane. All I needed to do was hold on, just a little longer. On that day, I would take revenge.
I even had a knife.
I followed him through the African Market, and from there I followed him home.
Let us see where this ‘shit’ lives, I thought to myself. Let us see what life had given him! A domus! A tiny domus! He had a garden. He had a stone walk. He had shutters. With windows of green and bluish glass. I priced it out in my head. The labor alone 30 denarii. The glass 50 denarii. There was a fireplace. A small trail of smoke rose from inside his tiny master villa. SHIT! I am cold. He has a fire! There was a well. I am thirsty. His tiny villa, no bigger than a gardener’s house, had red slate upon the roof. 100 Denarii. I slept in rain! Not only did he have a well. You won’t believe this. His house, his tiny little villa with slated roof sat under an aqueduct. Luxury. Pure luxury. Water dripped from on high, a leak in the expensive construction, spattered the tiles with droplets. Free water!
I stalked up to the front door. There was something drawn upon the face of the wood that made me freeze in my tracks. Drawn in chalk, was a graffiti of a man having his tongue torn out. I wanted to run. I don’t know what kept me there. Neighborhood children must have drawn it there. They marked his house, wanting everyone to know this was the house of a torturer. Behind me on the street suburra-shits moved about on the business of the day. Men hauled packages, food sellers barked their wares, and plebeians ignored the fact they had a monster living in their midst. The neighbors looked at me like I was crazy to be standing there. There were few villas in the suburra, mostly tenements stacked upon the other. If you had a villa, you had connections. Even a tiny villa like this. Though this was a comfortable domus set in the dirty street, it was a domus that no one dared approach. No one would try to rob it. No one would assail the man inside. The chalk graffiti was a public service. It was a warning to stay away.
A man walking to work stopped for a moment, and said quickly, “I wouldn’t knock there unless you want your balls in a vice.” The advice-giver then continued on his way laughing at my embarrassment. “What dick-head would knock on a torturer’s door?” he must have thought. My face turned bright red.
Look, look. The torturer lived in luxury. He lived under a tiled roof, by a fire, while I piss in the street. He slept on a bed. Food. Three squares a day! Beans! When is the last time I dined on porridge. He had porridge! DID I HAVE PORRIDGE?
He won’t get away with it, I thought. I will not let the little cockroach get away with my porridge. What is that? I smelled it. There’s a sausage cooking behind that door. A SAUSAGE!
“OPEN THE DOOR!” I shouted.
“OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR!” I shouted again, louder.
I knocked. I used my fists to rattle the hinges. I kicked the door with my feet, and began to cry. “OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR!” I screeched. My voiced carried like a siren. People stopped in the street to look at the naked beggar making a fool of himself. What happened next was no surprise.
The door opened.
Once I was an accounting slave. It was a good life. Days filled with numbers: three meals a day, two cups of wine, one bath every week, one visit to the local brothel every other month.
A good life. A VERY GOOD LIFE, and I had friends. I had the companionship of six accountants. My familia. My wonderful familia. I worked for the city treasury. Brothers in numbers ALL.
I was a slave to the Aerarium, the municipal treasury of Rome. Adding numbers was my profession. If it doesn’t add up, it is wrong. I thought life was like that. Simple. Two plus two is four. You could always count on four showing up. Two plus two is four. As faithful as the Venus-Day-Feast. The accounting slaves always got their Venus-Day-Feast.
The day was almost over. I was looking forward to our banquet – one bowl of beans, one quarter bread, and a half measure of wine. A FEAST – a glorious feast.
I would never get that meal again. I dreamed of it.
Bowl of beans
One quarter bread
Half measure wine.
AND A BED TO SLEEP.
One afternoon, just before the Venus-Day-Feast, two soldiers dragged me from the accounting room. My fellow accountants, my so-called familia, ran to the other side of the room, and cowered like chickens, as if one of the fowls was being dragged to the dinner pot. Accounting slaves are cowards.
I spent a week in jail.
One morning I was pulled before the judge to stand trial — the Quaester, chief of all finances in the city of Rome – head of the sacred treasury would judge my case. I had known him all my life. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and looked up at the fat, graying man who had seen me grow from boyhood.
“Lucius, we have been going over the numbers,” said the Quaester. “Your accuser, Marius Puso Carbo claims that you have been stealing money from the sacred treasury.”
I cried out, and dropped to the stone floor. One thought shouted in my brain: WHO BELIEVES A SLAVE?
The Quaester looked down over his desk at the pitiful heap on the floor. ME! He sat high on his bench looking over his accounting table, his abacus, his ink bottle and stylus that still sat on his table as if he could use these tools to help weigh the evidence. I knew he had trouble seeing far, thus I knew he squinted at me from his perch.
Again the same thought:
WHO BELIEVES A SLAVE?
It comes early. The young master paired with the whipping boy. The cook finds fruit missing from the pantry — he blames the slaves. The estate manager comes up short on the books – he blames the slaves. The mistress’s hair falls out – she blames the dressing slave. A pillow is misplaced, and the slave has her fingers rapped. The slave is presumptuous – he is slapped. The wine in the cellar is empty by two amphorae – the slave is caned for sipping copiously at the master’s property, even though the thieves are the master’s own sons.
“All listen to the noble Quaester!” The shout went up in the accounting hall. The Quaester began to speak. The crowd quieted. The room was filled with citizens, clerks, accountants, and accounting slaves. Everyone present was instrumental in keeping track of the vast reserves of money that made up the Republic’s treasury.
GOLD COUNTERS – ALL!
“Oh…dear me,” said the Quaester. “Lucius fell to his knees. Guards, Lucius has fallen, get him to his feet. Gently, fools. Lucius is our friend. He is a slave that is true, but it was Lucius that found the overspending in the Capanius Incident, and it was Lucius that found a way to make up for the Caesarian Withdrawal. Get him a chair…yes; I know he is a slave. Get him a chair just the same. There is no reason we can’t be civilized.”
I was pulled off the floor and deposited on an old wooden stool. A guard kept a hand on my shoulder to steady me.
The room erupted with shouts. They wanted my head. “KILL HIM! KILL THE SHIT!”
“As Quaestor,” the judge shouted over the din, “I have reviewed the accounts and a considerable sum that has been removed from both treasuries – municipal and military. I would like those in the room to know that Lucius was very helpful in recovering the monies.
I was. I was very helpful. With the threat of death, of course I was helpful.
The Quaestor continued: “While he was in our custody, and without persuasion, we brought the question of the missing money to Lucius as a simple accounting problem, and he was more than happy to show us where the money went. He is very clever.”
“HE’D BETTER SHOW US, THE SHIT!” The audience roared.
The Quaester shook his head. “Don’t be so hard on him. It was not Lucius who took the money.”
“What? What? What did he say?” was the mumble that ran through the crowd. For a moment I felt a tinge of hope. I kept my head down. I wanted to cry. I wanted to sob with relief. It is true. I helped them. They showed me the books. I showed them where every penny went. My teacher, the Quaester, now sitting up on his high counting table, had taught me well. His mantra was thus: “Follow the money, follow the copper. Chase the silver and the gold to every cave and every hole.”
The room fell silent. The Quaester satisfied that he quieted the troublemakers continued with his summing up: “Upon the suggestion of Lucius himself, we raided several banks that Carpo frequents and found several suspicious accounts that match exactly the amount taken from the treasuries. It seems the real culprit has come into a vast fortune and he can’t explain where he got it. Lucius has nothing. Carbo has everything. The evidence is clear. Guards, bring in the citizen, Marius Puso Carbo for judgement.”
Through the outer doors the noble was dragged into the room. Carbo’s nose was broken. There was a bloodstain on his toga, and he had pissed himself as well.
He was presented to the crowd. The guards put him on his feet and led him about the little circle surrounded by the accounting clan. The audience was ecstatic. What fun! A noble in fetters. Too many slaves had been accused and convicted, and disposed of in the past. To see a noble drawn up before the court would be the talk of the wine bars for months – no…for years!
Carbo screamed his innocence and threw his accusations in my direction: “It was the slave Lucius that stole the money. I am a free citizen of Rome! I am a patrician, mind you! I demand to be tried in the court. I demand a jury by the Senate. I demand that Cicero be employed as my counsel. How can you treat me this way?”
It is then he started to moan. It was like a dog protesting the collar around his neck. He wailed out of self-pity and terror.
The Quaester made a face. He pointed at Puso and said, “Guards, gag him. I can’t stand to hear a citizen wail like an old woman.”
The courtroom went quiet, except for a titter of amusement. Carbo sputtered and coughed as the dirty mouth guard was applied.
“That’s better. Good. Carbo, this is a court. I admit not a fancy one that would be drawn up in the Forum, but we are still a court. When you elected to work here, you agreed to sign on to our method of justice. The Legions summarily judge their own; we are no different. Officers summarily merit out punishments to the ranks. We are no different. Even Senators can judge their fellows. In this case, the holy bank is judging you. And the evidence is clear.”
He turned to the room, addressing the slaves and freed men. “Citizens, freedmen, accounting slaves, and esteemed money lenders, Marius Puso Carbo is a thief. He shall be sent to the arena. Tell the arena manager I want a fitting death for him.” The Quaester leaned back on his high chair tapping his chin with a considered deliberation. “Shall we say…HE SHOULD BE FORCED TO EAT – GOLD?”
The crowd roared with delight. A squeaky voice in the back shouted: “Yes, let him eat gold till his belly pops.”
The crowd stopped. There was a bang on the marbled floors. The chair on which Puso sat had toppled over. The fat man flailed his legs like a crab tipped over on the beach. It was then the sound of a tortured cat filled the room. It was Puso.
“Oh, me…Puso has gotten free of his gag,” said the Quaester with mild concern. “Oh, dear me. Guard, stop the infernal wailing of the prisoner. ORDER! ORDER! Put the gag back into place so we can have just a little peace and quiet.” The Quaester placed his hands over his ears to blot out the screams.
Restraining Puso was difficult, there was a moment of confusion. Puso’s head shook side to side, avoiding the dirty cloth that was to gag his mouth. The audience laughed at the spectacle. The guards put up with it only for so long, until they grabbed his hair, to steady his erratic movements, and shoved the cloth deep into his throat. He choked and his face turned red.
“Yes…that’s better.” The Quaester said before directing his attention towards me.
Quietly I said my prayers. I said them to the floor. I said them to the sky. I said them to my ancestors. “Oh please, oh please, in the name of the gods. In the name of Jupiter, Minerva, great Hermes…oh Gods, oh Gods…have pity.”
The Quaester spoke. “Lucius. Look at me Lucius,” he said. I raised my chin and he continued. “Deeeaar Lucius. Faithful Lucius. Sweeeeet Lucius. I have determined that you are a reliable and faithful slave to the State. We realize that he obeyed an order of a citizen. For a slave to deny an order of a citizen is death. As slave you are a mere talking tool. However, you did take part. I don’t believe that you understood the illegalities. You calculated the numbers, and were happy for your portion of wine. I cannot expect for you to act like a freemen as more as my pen and my paper to tell me what is right before I write it down. I cannot expect my slave to understand the moral implications, as much as I can expect the sundial to double check the time. If the sun shines, the sundial does what it is told. So, we shall forgive Lucius. However, the law has its expectations. We must present his evidence and Lucius must testify. We do have a problem. The law demands that a slave must be tortured. That is the law, and that is what will be done. The law must be honored.”
I fell out of my chair.
The guards looked up at the Quaester for instructions.
“Oh dear, Lucius fell out of his chair. Guards, please put him back – gently! It’s nothing personal, Lucius; it’s nothing personal at all. We all like you at the treasury. We shall talk to the torturer to make it…perfunctory.”
It is then I passed out.
There is a small wharf on the Tiber. There is a storage facility, near the water’s edge, the walls made of marble, and tight against the rising of the river on the various months. Robe and cloth was stored there once, but it was determined too moist, and too susceptible to rot, so the State took it over. I was thrown into a cage drawn by an ill-tempered bull. I was carted through the streets with children throwing stones. Arriving at the storage cell, two grumpy soldiers dragged me out towards a double door in stone. Both doors were iron, it opened slowly, and Grumpy Ass and Radish Eater took me down a long hallway. The corridor went down an incline. The floor was wet and slippery. The deeper I was dragged below ground, the wetter the floor. The Tiber had a way of finding its way into the underwater cell.
Torches kept everything lit, and sputtered as if trying to stay alive in this dank place. I was tied to a chair. The room smelled of shit. In front of me was a table set with two cups of water. A wax tablet and a stylus laid unattended. A small wooden chair sat empty.
Oh, how I wanted a cup. Just a cup. Yet the moment the thought entered my head, I wanted to piss. A good private piss. My legs shook. My jaw shook.
Somewhere in that room…I couldn’t see where, a door opened and closed. I felt a burst of cold air touch my back. It made me shiver. A hand touched my shoulder. I screamed.
A young male voice whispered in his my left ear.
“I am required by the State to torture you. My employer said, make it ‘perfunctory.’ I am not familiar with this word.”
My torturer was a foreigner. I tried to turn my head to look at the person’s face, but I was tied tightly to the back of the chair and the ropes bit my wrists, and kept my shoulders pinned. I answered his question. I had no desire to be helpful. But I did. At a time like this, some men loose the power of words. Some men babble up to the point the execution blade takes their neck. “A definition might be, ” I explained. “… to perform without enthusiasm. Another definition might be to get it done and over with. So, get it done you son of a whore. Get it done now. LET’S JUST GET IT OVER WITH, SO I CAN CONTINUE WITH MY LIFE. PRICK ME, NEEDLE ME, SCOURGE ME, AND FLAIL MY ASS, BUT GET IT DONE. GET IT DONE. JUST GET IT DONE!” I was crying. Tears were on my cheeks. It was a stupid thing to do. Why did I open up my mouth? What idiot asks for the torturing to start? Human nature says delay it. Human nature puts the unpleasant off. No one likes it. No one loves it.
My torturer was amused. I heard a sigh. A sweet voice whispered again in my ear. “If your definition of the word ‘perfunctory’ is incorrect, it shall go hard for you,” he said.
“When is torture easy?” I said over my shoulder. “Perfunctory. It means ‘to perform mechanically.’ Oh, by the Gods, what are you? Persian, Egyptian, Hittite, Druid or a Palmyra hire? Show yourself, you futter.”
The voice walked around the chair. He had black curly hair, the beginnings of a manly beard. There was a ring in both ears. His skin was flawless, and he had strong arms. I suppose a torturer’s trait. Strong arms to strangle and hold your victim down. “I have no idea what I am, accountant,” the torturer said. “Egyptian likely. I grew up on an island, and didn’t know that there were such things as Romans until I was ten. Like any boy I wanted to see what was over the horizon. I left. I left. Ships come and go, and one day I was on a swan ship towards Ostia.”
The young man read some papers on his desk. “I had a talk with your owner. He said you are important,” the torturer said. He then smiled with perfect teeth. It was a smile to win over pretty boys, and seventeen year old girls. “My name is Xerxes. The quaestor wants your session with me to be…perfunctory…so there is that word again. He told me the Senate is fond of you. They say that they admire your skill with numbers and take special pride in that…” he searched for the word, “…memory…yes, that’s it…memory. ‘Do not ruin what the Gods’ gave him,’ The Quaester said.
“Is it true that you can remember everything that has ever happened to you?” He said with amazement.
I dropped my head before I began to speak. That again. When people ask me to speak of it, I start to recall everything. I can go through the day and be fairly normal, but something always set my memory off. One word could be a floodgate. I paused, not that I had to recall, not that I had forgotten, but it was a matter of which memory, which memory shall he drawn out when thousands float unimpeded inside my head trying to escape through eyes and mouth. I had the memory of Apollo. The ability to remember everything that had ever happened to me in my entire life. This was a skill that I did not want to have before having a session with the state torturer. Total recall made me wonderful playing at any game of chance. What’s more APOLLO’S MEMORY made me an awfully fine accountant. Ask me to remember an entry, and I can tell you the day and the hour. Ask me to withdraw a sum of money, I can recall the exact amount, the time, the place, and the person who has his hand out to take the coins. Ask me to recall an order, by a patrician called Carbo, who said withdraw this sum and transfer the amount to the Temple of Venus under the name Crussodo, and I am your man.
“IS IT TRUE?” The torturer asked. “You can remember everything that happened in your life. EVERYTHING?”
I cleared my throat and spoke. “When I was five, I was beat up by five boys in my village.” I wouldn’t be able to stop the memory if I wanted to. Once spoken it would flood out through words or float out through visions. It continued: “They practiced slamming their fists into my face. And when they were done, they threw me into the bay. Cold water. Water up my nose. I remember their faces, what they wore, and even the fish that looked at me with surprise when I fell below the waves. I even remember the smell.”
“The smell?” my torturer asked.
“The boys ate fish cakes for breakfast, with a hint of nuts.” I explained.
“You-remember that?” The torturer commented shocked by the answer.
“Remember it?” I wanted to giggle. I wanted to laugh. “I can still smell the stink on their lips.”
“What else, accountant?” He asked.
“When I was three, my mother left me in the care of an aunt. My aunt had a male visitor and he ‘took her’ up against the wall. I can still see her legs up in the air, and the backside of her lover.”
“Do not lie to me.” The torturer hissed.
“When I was one, it was a bright summer day. The clouds overhead moved slowly by, and I saw a hand so large that it could bloat the sun. Shade was provided by that hand, because I was so small.”
“A mother’s hand no doubt?” The torturer surmised. “How far back can you remember?” His eyes were wide in wonder.
I slumped in my chair. Ropes and chains kept me in place. The talking gave me no comfort. It was a temporary outlet from the terror that ran up and down my spine. I knew what was to come. I craved anything to take my mind off the flaying, the cut and whip that would tear my skin and nerves. I raised my head and spoke again. “When I was born, at the moment of life, I remember…”
“ENOUGH!” the torturer shouted. The torturer slammed the table with his hand. “ENOUGH!” He shouted. “ENOUGH!” He wailed. He stood up. His lips drawn tight across his face. “I find this entertaining, but my orders are clear,” he said. “I am required to draw pain from you. It seems I am not going to be granted the favor of your memory ever fading from this day. I am a slave too, Lucius. I am a slave to my profession. I have to do as I am told. Told. TOLD! ” Tears came to the torturer’s face. He wept bitterly and his body shook.
For a moment, I thought the torturer expected pity from me. “Oh for the Gods…don’t cry…please,” I said out loud. “Be a man. Do your job. Get it over with. Life may be hard for you, but it is far harder for me!” I started to laugh. He is not allowed to be sad. Sadness is reserved for me. Only me.
The dungeon door opened and his tears disappeared. Grumpy Ass and Radish Eater entered the room and immediately his demeanor changed. He grew hard. His back straightened.
He barked out an order, “BRING HIM!” His voice shrill, like the point of a knife. He was in command of the room; he was in command of me.
The guards took me, chair and all, and carried me into darkness. Xerxes followed behind, his head downward, his face deep in concentration, a serious pout upon his face. He bit his lip like a petulant boy being called to his chores.
The questions came.
“Were you involved in this scheme with Marius Puso Carbo?”
“How were you able to track down the money that Carbo was hiding?”
“Had you ever taking money from the general Treasury? The sacred treasury? Really? Not even a copper to buy a lunch or a treat from the market? Not a copper? Not a single copper?”
“No.” I said. “Please,” I said, “not again, not again.”
Imagine what he did. Veins, skin, toes and feet, nails and fingers are all receptors of – PAIN! The sound was produced by a throat released the retreat of a needle, or the application of a knife. There are other routes to pain…all controlled by the garrote, applied with such delicacy to cut off the windpipe, just enough to make the victim…uncomfortable, and to see ‘stars’ and blackness creep up from below – to stare into the abyss of Hades. This is pain and discomfort applied with expert skill. This is art. Of course there are softer places on the human body where a knife can be applied. Was I screaming from pain, or from the realization that if the pain continued my manhood would be splayed upon the plate like a lunch for a Cyclops?
Grumpy Ass and Radish Eater dragged me back to the outer room. Blood covered my legs and genitals. They untied me. A cloth was used to wrap around my shoulders. One of the guards picked up a bucket and poured a stream of cold water over my head.
Xerxes looked refreshed as he stepped out of the shadows. He was calm, and almost happy. He took a cloth, and lovingly wiped the gook and blood from my face. He sat down and said one word:
And I remembered. As I remember now…every cut, prick, nick, and tear. I remember every nerve that shouted in agony, how long, the burning, the intensity, nothing fading, nothing falling out, no pain replaced by the dullness of time. I would not forget. Nothing receding. The pain begins again. And again. And again. And again. Day in. Day out. Every week. Every month. Every year. Wine does not make it fade. As if I could afford it. Nor hemp. As if I could afford it. Nor sex. As if I could afford THAT! It comes in sleep. It comes in dreams. I am always in that chair. My testes spread like an oyster on the plate.
Needless to say, they returned me to Aerarium. They welcomed me back though they looked at me shame-faced behind my back. What little crimes did my fellow slave-accountants commit? Soon shame turned to pity, and pity to anger. How could I possibly hold a grudge? The chickens whispered and talked behind my back, always falling silent as I walked past. Quaester tried to cheer me up. A little more wine, a little more time to dawdle at the Pompeian theater. This was gossiped as special treatment. Slaves love to gossip.
“Give Lucius, the easy jobs,” he told the supervisors.
So I had extra time to plan my departure. Numbers were my game. I figured how to earn money on the side. The familia changed. Men died, retired or were sold off. And after many years a new Quaester found me standing in front of his counting desk with 1000 denarii for the taking, as I sold him on a lie that the sum was the amount agreed upon by his predecessor. One thousand denarii was enough to buy my freedom. He was overwhelmed and greedy, and accepted the deal.
As I walked out with the manumission papers in my hand, the new Quaester said, “You won’t find it easy.”
He was right. Soon, I was on the street and free to starve. Free to be beaten. Free to be ignored. Free to be chased away from doors. Free to shiver in the cold. Free for my clothes to rot away in the rain and in the cold. I was free to join the unemployed and the hungry.
So I stood at Xerxe’s door. I was angry. Two years of sleeping with rats – imagine waking up to find a family of rodents sleeping on your belly for warmth. Two years of scrambling for scraps. Two years of begging for coin. I was ready for revenge.
I am Nemesis. My knife was hidden in my palm. I quickly planned out what I was going to do. Thrust the blade into his belly. Hug him while you do it. While you hug him twist the blade, and just when bloody spittle goes past his lips, you remind him. “Remember me? I am Lucius the accountant.”
Someone was coming. There was footsteps inside. There was movement. A voice shouted through the door: A familiar voice, but muffled and distant. “Who is at my door?”
“I am Lucius, the accountant. I was one of your victims.”
FOOL! FOOL! FOOL! Why did I say that? Did I expect Xerxes to throw wide the door to a victim? Idiot!
Three locks were turned back, and the door opened. It was not a hesitant opening. The door was thrown back – wide. There was no taking a peek. There was no fear of what was on the other side. The occupant had no fear. He stood in front of me. I knew him. I never forgot him. The sticking point was whether he remembered me. I could feel my body weaken like I was once more strapped into the chair. This was not how it was supposed to play out. I swayed upon my feet. To be looking at those eyes that applied the straps and the needle made me queasy. I had trouble standing. I couldn’t straighten my spine. I wanted to run away. I wanted to play Nemesis: daughter of night, the wielder of retribution, but my back slowly reverted into a beggar’s stance. It was him. I knew it was him: the islander, the unknown Egyptian, the young man who stowed away. The torturer. He was just beginning a man’s beard at the tip of his chin. His eyes were large. He was taller, and developed high cheekbones. Of course, he was older. He had grown.
“You look to be in one piece,” the torturer said. “Are you sure that you’re one of mine?”
A joke. He’s got to be kidding. The tiny knife was gripped tightly in my hand. It had cut the inside of my palm. This made me happy. It was there, ready to use, but instead of cutting him, the following stupid, idiotic words came from my mouth: “Yes. I seem to be. At least, the last time I looked.”
Xerxes closed his eyes. He sniffed the air. He clenched and unclenched his jaw as if he was waiting for me to end his life right there at the door. “Well then, Lucius the accountant, get it over with,” he said. “Take your knife and get it over with.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Xerxes opened his eyes. “Where is your knife? You must have brought a knife.”
I slowly showed him my weapon, reaching out and opening my fingers so that he could see. It was small, with a dull blade. The handle was carved with unvarnished wood. A child’s toy. A weapon made by a wannabe gladiator. It was crudely made.
The torturer giggled. “What? It’s a knife fit for olive paste on a morning roll. This is what you brought? My blades are much more impressive. If you bought that,” he said with contempt, “…the knife-maker cheated you. He cheated you badly. How much did you pay?”
“I stole it.”
“The knifemaker had that on his table? He should be ashamed.”
I stood there embarrassed, wondering what to do next.
“Would you like to come in?” The torturer asked.
Come in? He wanted me to come in like I was a neighbor looking to borrow a slice of cheese. Come in? I’ll come in, and then strangle the little futter. I’ll be happy to come in. He had all the knives upon that torturing day. Now, I was armed.
“Just don’t stand there. You still have feet. No one hobbled you. I certainly did not. Step over the threshold, and welcome to my home”
“My feet are dirty,” I said looking down at my swollen feet. I had no shoes.
“Never mind. It is hard to keep clean in Rome. I shall take delight in the scrubbing of the floor. You are my guest.”
I stepped in and almost fainted. There was another torture. I was overcome with the scent of cooking sausages. The smell was exquisite. Heavenly! A glorious scent of meat, fat and spice. I even recognized the brand. I had hung often enough around the Tiberian shops. My companions were dogs, untethered dogs, looking for a handout. My fellow beggars whined and shifted from foot to foot trying to stave off the gnawing pain. Like me, they cocked their heads side to side, and looked at the cooks with wide-eyed wonder. So did I. The cooks chased me off, and left the dogs to enjoy the show. Blood sausage was the best meat the Tiberian shops could produce! My torturer ate blood sausage. Glorious! I would have paid just to have taken a sniff of the sizzling meat. The smell of pork and leeks hung in the air. There was something else. Oh my Gods. Bread. Wonderful bread. Crusty bread mixed with cheese, slathered with olive oil, sat on the table.
There were several chairs and tables inside the torturer’s home. Of which one table was piled high with scrolls. It reads, I thought. It actually, reads. Xerxes was a lover of Homer, and poets of all kinds, and fluty historians telling of distant lands and times of long ago. He would haunt the public libraries, sending the librarians running for the exits, and the patrons to cough and move away from the public torturer that was known up and down the street. No one wanted to share a bench with him. No one wanted to share a table. Xerxes sought companionship in scrolls, and the adventures of heroes in overwritten Greek Novels. Pirates, and men looking for a kidnapped girl in some Asian court were always the plot. In his time off, from chains and knifes and screaming men upon the rack, he recited poetry, and read of ships sailing to uncharted islands.
The torturer’s house was clean, and the floor scrubbed. There was a pair of shoes laid neatly by the door. There were plates, cleaned and still wet set upon a table, as if expecting guests, and blue glass cups that looked washed and dried. This man who wore the ‘blood red cap’ lived alone, but lived as if expecting…company. There were two glasses, two plates, and two chairs. What FOOL would visit a torturer?
“Where is your companion?” I asked.
Xerxes looked at me with a hint of sadness. “I live alone,” he said.
It is then I realized the truth.
A sewer cleaner, though not exactly a fellow you would want to invite to a party, at least had friends. The local hair-plucker who charged two coppers per leg, and 20 coppers per armpit had friends. The tax collector had friends. The torturer, especially the paid torturer of the state, did not.
The torturer eats alone.
Xerxes offered me a chair. He was all politeness and courtesy. I sat. I didn’t want to turn my back on him, but I did. What was wrong with him? He had to know why I was there. I could easily kill him, I thought. Xerxes had a carving knife. It sat on the table, a kitchen utensil perfectly sharpened and clean. Of course, he would keep it clean. How was this sausage cutter any different than any of the instruments he used to prick his victims. I could grab it easily. It would take mere seconds to slash it across his throat. Who questions the death of a state torturer? Kill him and walk away. Do you think his neighbors would care? Do you think his victims? No one would approach this house for months, until the stink of his body brought neighbors to inspect the interior of his little palace.
On the other hand, Xerxes had a carving knife. I was just as disposable as he was. HE – COULD – KILL – ME. It would take only a few moments of unpleasantness. It would only take a short time to clean up my blood. Carry my body to the garbage heap or toss it in the Tiber. How many bodies now float in the Tiber? No one would question him. No one would care. I would be just another dead beggar in the Tiber. How many have floated by? How many have been dragged from the Cloaca Maxima: mother sewer of Rome?
“Would you like some wine?” Xerxes asked.
I nearly fainted. Wine. WINE! Do you know how long it has been? I’ve been living on the street for two years, drinking filthy water from the Tiber, and cupping water from fountains. No one told me when I bought my freedom that I had to pay for a bed, for food, for clothes – a slave gets it all. How many nights did I dream of the Venus-Day-Feast?
Bowl of beans
One quarter bread
Half measure of wine.
AND A BED TO SLEEP.
”Oh, yes…please,” I said with a gush. Wine was something for those with money. The thought of it almost made me cry.
Xerxes brought out a small amphorae and two clay cups. He didn’t bother adding water to the mix. That meant the wine was strong. Was he trying to get me drunk? I didn’t care. He sat in front of me as I guzzled. I held my cup out for more.
“Why are you here?” Xerxes asked as he poured.
Not answering right away, I drained the cup again. I licked the dregs from the bottom. I drank again, and again. Xerxes filled it to the brim upon each request.
A good question, indeed, I thought. I dropped my dull olive-paste knife upon the table.
“I’ve seen that,” Xerxes said. “If you have come to kill me use this.” He took his sausage cutter and pushed it up against my hand. His eyes then diverted to the brazier cooking sausages near the door. He grabbed the blade. “Never mind that – let’s eat.”
I cried. My body racked and shook with tears. Xerxes had seen many men cry. Tears were delivered up at the end of a sharp knife or a red-hot poker. For some reason, to see me in tears set something in motion. Immediately, Xerxes was on his feet filling a plate with bread and cheese for his guest. Remember the sausages? Magically, they were off the grill and on the plate. Sizzling blood sausages with fennel spice were offered up to me. Leeks, garlic and wine gravy sizzled on the plate. I wept.
“Don’t dawdle,” said the torturer. “Sit. Sit. Eat old man. Eat.”
Old man? It was not till later that I found out that the both of use were of the same age. I was aged by torture, and he was preserved by torture.
“Do you remember me?” I asked, watching his face. For some odd inexplicable reason I wanted him to remember me. It would be a waste, to eat his dinner, kill him, and find out that he had no memory of Lucius the Accountant.”
Xerxes sighed. “Do you remember, your torturing day?”
Idiot, I thought. Remember? Of course I remembered. I decided to tell him. “Every single day. In my sleep. In the day and in the night. I remember the knife and the sting of pain. I remember smelling my own fear. I remember my piss on the floor as YOU splayed my testes with your carving knife. I can piss, but not straight. I can barely walk. My back is bent. I am old. My hair is grey!”
“Old man, my old Tithonus,” Xerxes said. He patted me on the shoulder.
“Eos, the goddess, the rosy-fingered dawn had a lover. She asked a favor from Zeus. She wanted her lover to have eternal life. There was a catch.”
I sighed. “Tell me.”
“She forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus would live forever, but would forever grow old inside.”
“WOULD I BE TITHONUS!” I shouted. I am old! The sun bakes me. I can hardly rise from a chair. Look at my hands. Claws. Claws. Crab hands.”
“I know old man. I know,” Xerxes said. “You are old on the outside. I am old on the inside. What a pair we are. We are a matching set.”
Xerxes took my hands. He pulled me down into a chair. “Eat, eat old fool.”
All I remember are plates, cups, fingers smeared with olive paste. Sausage grease, smacking lips, teeth tearing at blood sausage, leeks sopping up gravy, and mushrooms with the tang of wine. My tongue and lips were tired from so much use, but still I ate. I used bread to sop up what is left. I even ate the lettuce still wet with gravy and wine. I picked the plate up and licked it clean. Ever lick an iron plate? My tongue slightly bled.
“Your eyes, Lucius, your eyes,” Xerxes pointed out in a whisper.
“What do you mean?” I asked while stifling a yawn.
“You must sleep.” The torturer said as an order and gently guided me to a bed. He threw a wool blanket over him.
“It is cold,” I said. A chill seeped into every crevice of the torturer’s house, and slowly and carefully found its way even into my bones.
“You must sleep then,” Xerxes whispered.
The lamps were dampened. Wicks suffocated under thumb and finger. The room was as dark as death. I closed my eyes. I was on a bed of straw. No cold. No breeze. A blanket draped over my body.
I could hear the young man’s footsteps as he walked from room to room, performing the rituals of night: closing the house, wiping up, extinguishing lamps. It is then I felt someone get into bed. The bed creaked and the mattress of straw and feathers moved. A hand grasped my blanket and tugged to take a portion for himself.
“Xerxes?” I asked. “What are you doing?”
“It is cold,” the pretty voice said defensively. “Close your eyes Lucius. Let me provide the warmth to rest your bones. Sleep old man. Let me ease the pain that I have caused you.” The young man began to massage my back. “Just sleep,” he said, and then said something that sounded like a prayer. “I call upon the God Somnus who shall wrap you in the arms of his son, Nyx – god of night. Nyx shall push back the stars and allow you to drift into dream.”
I tried to object, but I felt two arms wrap about me. For the first time in years, I knew that no harm would come to me. No rat shall nibble on my ear. No shiver of cold shall numb my toes. Xerxes stroked my hair, and the breath on the back of my neck was warm and comforting as I lost consciousness into dreams.
I was on a skiff floating upon green water. The only sound were cicadas, the singers of the dusk, repetitive in their song, waves of pulsating sound touching my ears. Birds flew low and I could hear the flapping of wings as they beat the air, barely inches above the surface. The river moved in the direction of a green island shrouded in mist. Someone was on the shore. As I got closer, the sun burned the midst away, leaving the silhouette of a young man on the sandy beach. He was shouting, beckoning me to approach. I could not hear the words. The skiff moved closer to the island called ‘forgetfulness’ and there stood Xerxes, smiling and beckoning me to join him upon the shore.
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